Leading The Phillips Collection Into Its Next Century

Dorothy Kosinski, Vradenburg Director and CEO of The Phillips Collection, will conclude her tenure at the end of 2022. Following 15 years of distinguished leadership, she will be named Director Emerita. Here, Dorothy reflects on her time at the Phillips.

Dorothy Kosinski at the Phillips’s 100th Birthday Party, November 2021. Photo: Ryan Maxwell

How do you think the Phillips has changed over the last 15 years?
During my tenure, the museum has moved outside its walls—it has become more engaged with and responsive to our communities, to the art of our time, and to the urgent issues that confront our society today. This is probably most apparent in our satellite space at THEARC in Southeast DC. But it is also clear in our growing collection that embraces diverse voices from across our nation and the world. We tell stories from Kinshasa, Congo; from Sitka, Alaska; from New Delhi, India; from Harlem; and from Washington, DC. We tell a more complex and global story about modern and contemporary art. Additionally, the Phillips is engaged in constructive conversation about migration, climate degradation, art and wellness, the threat of war, and women in the arts. At the same time, we model the most serious scholarship and conservation inquiry about our 19th- and 20th-century holdings to continuously advance new knowledge and new perspectives on our historic core collection. Of course (and greatly accelerated since the pandemic), our museum races to stay in advance of the demands for technological portals and digital assets in order to achieve immediate, transparent, and in-depth access.

The Phillips is not isolated and our work reflects the enormous changes in the field. I think I will paraphrase my esteemed colleague Lonnie Bunch who said that the museum is not a community center but must be at the center of the community. That pretty much sums up the thrust and direction of this change. Additionally I will point to a book that just came out Change is Required: Preparing for the Post-Pandemic Museum containing my own essay (among 47 others) entitled “Purpose Is the Only Thing.” I think that, too, captures the essence of our efforts.

Workshop at Phillips@THEARC led by artist Janet Taylor-Pickett, February 2020

What makes the Phillips special?
The Phillips has a very precious and distinct character—intimate and accessible because of its domestic scale; personal and idiosyncratic because of its genesis as a private collection; deeply rooted in the immediate community and yet acknowledged globally for its expansiveness and excellence.

What are your hopes for the Phillips’s next century?
The Phillips was out ahead in its focus on issues of diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion. My hope is that this work only deepens, and that these values continue to permeate and drive all of our work and initiatives across the museum as they do now. That is the responsibility of the next generation of leaders and trustees.

Installation view of Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century, featuring (left to right) Alfonso Ossorio, Excelsior (1960), Richard Pousette-Dart, Totemic Transcendental (1982), Aimé Mpane, Maman Calcule (2013), Photo: Lee Stalsworth

What exhibitions and programs are you most proud of?
It is so hard to choose a favorite exhibition. I think the exhibition that I co-curated with my dear colleague Dr. Klaus Ottmann on Jackson Pollock, Alfonso Ossorio, and Jean Dubuffet (2013) was groundbreaking in its scholarly framing of an artist who had been unknown and underappreciated for so long. More recently, the project conceived by my esteemed colleague Dr. Adrienne L. Childs, Riffs and Relations: African American Art and the European Modernist Tradition (2020), was visually and intellectually exhilarating in its presentation of a complex and multi-layered story. I am very proud of our annual Artists of Conscience series; that has been one of our primary platforms for exploring the tough and knotty ideas in the art world and society at large. Most importantly, it is the artists’ voice that we center. I am inspired by our Art and Wellness initiatives that bring us in meaningful and impactful dialogue with children, veterans, and older adults. Empathy and resilience are the values at the heart of this work.

What is your favorite work in the collection? A work that is not as well known?
That’s an impossible question for me! I adore Manet’s Spanish Ballet (1862). I also love Simone Leigh’s No Face (Crown Heights) (2018). A work you might not know? For that I’d choose Aaron Maier-Carretero’s Not In Front of the Kids (2020) that we purchased from our juried invitational exhibit during the Centennial.

What are your plans after the Phillips?
I plan to exhale! I serve on the boards of directors of two foundations as well as on the National Endowment for the Humanities National Council, so I am pretty busy as it is. I am in the midst of several conversations framing my role at other organizations that allow me to offer my knowledge and experience in impactful leadership. I am also investigating fellowships and residencies that will allow me to return to some long postponed as well as new curatorial and scholarly projects.

Thoughts on women’s rights and our work in the museum

I know I am not alone in being depressed and appalled by the erosion of women’s rights in this country and around the world. Rape is used as a tool of power, terror, and abuse in war zones in Europe and Africa. Women are forced from their jobs and girls are turned away from schools in Afghanistan. In the US court rulings and new legislation strip control of reproductive and health decisions from women. The current atmosphere of intolerance encompasses legislation negatively impacting LGBTQ+ individuals, and the banning and censoring of books, to mention just two more troubling issues.

Simone Leigh, No Face (Crown Heights), 2018, Terracotta, graphite ink, salt-fired porcelain, and epoxy, 20 in x 8 in; 50.8 cm x 20.32 cm, Director’s Discretionary Fund, 2019

In my role as Director of The Phillips Collection, I want to share some thoughts about these troubling issues, and how our museum reflects and embraces our mission driven values of diversity, equity, access, and inclusion that are so boldly stated in our strategic plan, crafted and adopted by staff and board leadership, and that continues to guide our work in all ways. Our diversity values impact our workforce, our hiring, our institutional culture, our board of trustees, our collecting policies, the focus of our exhibitions and programs in the museum and in the community.

Our collecting policy explicitly embraces adding diverse voices—people of color and women. I want to mention just a few of the women that are now represented in our collection, acquired within the past ten years or so (by no means intended as a comprehensive list): Jae Ko, Kate Shepherd, Arlene Shechet, Zilia Sánchez, Nekisha Durrett, Ranjani Shettar, Nara Park, Zoë Charlton, Renée Stout, Marta Pérez García, Mequitta Ahuja, Janet Taylor Pickett, Barbara Liotta, Regi Müller, Tayo Heuser, Linn Meyers, Alyson Shotz, Jean Meisel, Jennifer Wen Ma, Helen C. Frederick, Bettina Pousttchi, Jeanne Silverthorne, Sandra Cinto, Julia Wachtel. I have been true to this goal of diversification in many of the purchases made with the Director’s Discretionary funding including works by Simone Leigh, Dindga McCannon, and the complete portfolio of the Guerilla Girls.

Nekisha Durrett with her artwork Airshaft (2021) in the bridges of The Phillips Collection. Photo: Brendan Canty

Many of these artists were featured in Vesela Sretenović’s Intersections exhibition series that was inaugurated in 2009, or from projects curated by Klaus Ottmann or Adrienne Childs, among others. The acquisition of the work by Zilia Sánchez resulted from the major monographic exhibition that Vesela organized in 2019 that traveled to New York and Ponce. Our exhibition of the Debra and Dennis Scholl collection of contemporary Australian Aboriginal women artists resulted in a stunning gift of six ceremonial poles. Marta Pérez García’s work entered the collection from our centennial community juried exhibit Inside Outside Upside Down, (curated by Elsa Smithgall and Camille Brown with Renée Stout) an introduction that resulted in her current Intersections exhibition Restos-Traces.

Marta Pérez García, Restos-Traces, 2021-2022, photo by AK Blythe

Our programming has also reflected women’s rights issues. Programs can be platforms for learning, exchange, and participation. In 2018 we mounted a solo installation by Australian artist, Halcyon fellow, Georgia Saxelby, To Future Women. Installed at the one-year anniversary of the Women’s March of January 2017, this project involved a community making, participatory letter writing activity, resulting in a time capsule of hundreds of expressions of anger, hope, sorrow, and solemn reflection. On February 14, 2018, Violence Against Women Day, we staged a panel discussion that brought an array of voices to the stage. How appropriate that this summer we have hosted Marta Pérez García’s powerful and disturbing Restos-Traces exhibition that confronts us with the resilience and strength of women who have survived domestic violence. Later this month, as the exhibition reaches its conclusion, programming will allow our communities to convene for further discussion, growth, and healing. In addition, I recall the 2020 annual Artists of Conscience Forum with the theme of “Women, Race and Representation,” celebrating the creativity of women highlighted throughout the Intersections series.

Installation image of Zilia Sánchez’s Juana de Arco (Joan of Arc), 1987

In 2020 we engaged in a heated debate about whether to install Black Lives Matter banners on our façade. We heeded the advice of then Chief Diversity Officer, Makeba Clay, that we should first “show the receipt,” and kept on doing our work towards diversity and inclusion, rather than making a performative gesture. Later that year we installed a work by conceptual artist Jenny Holzer which included two large banners “Moral Injury” and “So Vote.”  For me, that remains the key message and opportunity. It applies no matter what any individual’s opinion might be. In previous years we have hosted voter registration drives and citizenship ceremonies, activities we will continue to embrace. Our support of these activities seems especially important in a time when political forces are attempting to thwart the right of enfranchisement of the citizens of our country.

Very soon we plan to hold internal museum wide discussions with the participation of artist-activists with whom we have worked before. My hope is that this forum might afford a safe platform for a rich exchange of ideas and proposals. Additionally, next month internal staff will commence with the Diversity Intergroup Dialogue Series (DIDS). These sessions will afford each of us an opportunity to delve further in topics that reflect DEAI areas and methods to increase our cultural sensitivity.

Public programs will be announced in the near future.

We hope you continue to join us on our journey.

Regina Pilawuk Wilson, Syaw (Fishnet), 2014

A New Perspective on the Rebuild of Our Steinway

In December 2015 we posted a video by H. Paul Moon about the painstaking rebuild by PianoCraft of our Steinway piano that lives in the Music Room. This major and sorely needed renovation of this precious instrument used lumber from the Sitka spruce, wood that is highly prized by musical instrument makers. This work was transformative, and our rebuilt piano has been played by many renowned and emerging pianists through our fantastic music program.

A recent front page Washington Post story caught my eye. It featured a large two column above-and-below-the-fold color photo of a Sitka spruce in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest on Prince of Wales Island off the pan handle of the state of Alaska. The reporter was Juliet Eilperin. Her story was not about Steinway pianos but rather about the tug of war between the market value of a 180-foot sitka spruce as timber (around 6,000 board feet of timber worth around $17,500) and its value as climate change mitigator capturing carbon dioxide (holding around 12 metric tons of carbon and another 1.4 tons in the roots). The article states that the Tongass National Forest “holds the equivalent of 9.9 billion tons of CO2–nearly twice what the United States emits from burning fossil fuels each year.” Since the US purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, the value of the forest has been exploited to produce lumber, paper, rayon and other products. Preservationists have fought the building of roads and the pollution of paper mills. The indigenous Haida and Tlingit nations, drawing on an old and deep understanding of the resources of the forest, rivers, and ocean, argue that the old growth forests are essential for the landscape’s survival and also for their way of life. What are the solutions? To protect the forests by selling carbon credits to oil and gas companies, to foster a more balanced economy that depends not on industrial scale timber industry but on an intricate balance of Alaska native and small operator lumber companies, tourism, fishing, craft, and many other small industries.

This thoughtful, in-depth article brought me a new and unexpected appreciation of our beautiful Steinway piano. From now on I will marvel not only at its physical beauty, its auditory excellence, and of course the compelling art installed in the Music Room, but also at the magnificence and importance of a 500-year-old Sitka spruce to the ecological health of the planet and to the holistic well-being of the native peoples of Alaska. I will also pay tribute to the Piscataway and Anacostan native peoples of our DC region, on whose unceded land we live and work.